Picture by © UNHCR/ Beto Barata

From crowded favela to Olympic refugee fan favourite: This is judoka Popole Misenga's amazing story

After becoming homeless aged nine and suffering abuse, the Congolese-born judoka created a new life in Rio, became an Olympian, and is now targeting a second Games appearance in Tokyo.
By Andrew Binner

The idea of living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro may sound unpleasant to some, but for Popole Misenga it meant a second chance at life.

Growing up, the Democratic Republic of Congo-born judoka suffered great trauma after civil war claimed the life of his mother and left him homeless. As an adult, he then experienced gross abuse at the hands of his international judo coaches.

After fleeing the team camp at the 2013 World Judo Championships in Rio, Misenga sought refuge in the immigrant-heavy Bras de Pina favela. Despite living in undoubtedly impoverished and dangerous conditions, he was finally free of his tormentors.

“Everything I did back home, I Ieft there,” the 29-year-old told Olympics.com. “I arrived in Brazil to make another life, a new opportunity. I see that there are still opportunities. I still dream to get where I want.”

Popole Misenga represented the first ever Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016.
Picture by © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

He was eventually granted asylum, registered by the federal government, and given the legal right to earn a living. He finally felt like a human again.

This allowed the athlete to start training again in his spare time, and he was selected to represent the IOC Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

In 2019, Misenga was awarded an International Olympic Committee Refugee Athlete Scholarship. This meant that he could move with his Brazilian wife and their two children away from the favela and close to his training centre, where he is training to compete in his second Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“Now I am a father, I have to do a good thing,” he continued. “I'm fighting for them, for their lives to be good tomorrow, and so they don’t suffer what I went through in life, what I suffered."

Misenga's new home in a Rio favela was tough, but it gave him freedom and the change to continue his judo training.
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

Left homeless by civil war

Beginnings don’t come much harder than Misenga’s.

When he was nine, his mother was murdered during the Second Congo War. Fearing for his own life, the child fled to a nearby rainforest, where he wandered alone for a week.

“I slept on the streets,” he continued. “My life was not easy at all. I've seen people dying, the military taking revenge on people. Life for me was nothing.”

Eventually he was found and taken to a home for displaced children in the nation’s capital, Kinshasa.

It was here that Misenga was first introduced to judo. With a robust physical frame, he took the sport quickly and was fast-tracked to the national team in 2010, where he won a bronze medal at the under-20 African Championships.

While the sport did provide an escape from his tumultuous upbringing, Misenga claims that he and his teammates were essentially being held captive.

"I was entered for the national team but things were difficult back there," he told CNN. "They just wanted us to win medals and, if we failed, we would suffer."

Misenga: “My life was not easy at all. I've seen people dying, the military taking revenge on people. Life for me was nothing.”
Picture by © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Outside of competition, life was no easier. Even as an elite athlete, he was forced to live off scraps from the street.

“There is a United Nations military army in Congo,” he continued. “I would get in their garbage with a lot of friends from the street. We used to take food, egg, meat, boxes...we would take it. To eat, to sell. Eating, selling something.”

Seeking asylum in Brazil

Misenga’s problems with the ruthless national team coaches were exemplified at the 2013 World Judo Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Alongside fellow jodoka Yolande Mabika, the pair claimed that they were confined to their hotel rooms, and had their passports, money and meal tickets confiscated.

After two days with almost no food, Mabika escaped. Misenga decided to wait for a few more days. But when the coaches returned on the day of the competition smelling of alcohol, Misenga decided enough was enough. Mabika returned the next day to convince her teammate to join her, which he did.

The Congolese pair walked the streets until they met an Angolan refugee, who took them to the immigrant-heavy Bras de Pina favela.

While the neighbourhood’s reputation was dangerous, Misenga was granted asylum in 2014, meaning he was able to legally find work.

“I even got a CPF(Individual Taxpayer Registration Number) document,” Misenga, who a year later in 2015 got married to and had a child with Brazilian Fabiana Soares, said. “There is no document like that back home.

“This for me was better than anything because it was mine. I managed to get a work permit and it made me legal in the country, just like a regular person. 

“It was for my family. I look at my son who was born here and think, ‘I’m home’.”

Being registered as a citizen in Brazil allowed Misenga to earn a living, and compete in his new homeland.
Picture by © UNHCR/ Beto Barata

Initially he worked as a truck loader for $10 a day. But that all changed in 2015 when he was invited to continue his judo training at the Instituto Reacao (Reaction Institute) - a facility that is run to help disenfranchised youth affected by poverty and crime. 

“I was called and chosen by the institute,” Misenga said. “It gave me the chance to win, to make  a life and to escape the violence going on in Rio.

“I didn't know I was going back to my sport once again!”

He started trained under Brazilian judoka and Olympic bronze medalist Flavio Canto, as well as the institute's co-founder and veteran Olympic coach Geraldo Bernardes. The Brazilian Judo Federation supported the pair by providing food, equipment, transportation costs and medicine.

Selection for the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team

On June 3 2016, the IOC announced that Misenga had been selected to represent the first ever IOC Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Given his lack of preparation time, Misenga performed admirably to make the final-16 of the -90kg division. After beating India’s Avtar Singh, he was eliminated by world champion and eventual bronze medallist Gwak Dong-han of South Korea.

But the Congolese-born fighter had already won the hearts of the fans in his adopted home of Rio, who chanted “Po-po-le! Po-po-le!” as he fought in the Carioca Arena.

“I improved at the 2016 Olympics, as I won my first fight,” Misenga said. “In the second fight I lost my mind in the last forty seconds. But even in losing, I don't think I lost. I gained good experience to (help me) get to the 2020 Olympics and win a medal.”

As a Rio inhabitant, Misenga was a fan favourite at Rio 2016.
Picture by © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Going for a medal at Tokyo 2020

His desire to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 took a large step towards fruition when he was awarded an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship in 2019.

The extra training funds Misenga received allowed him and his family to move out of the favela, and closer to his training facility, where he could spend more time honing his craft.

“I'm training non-stop,” Misenga continued. “My coach Geraldo (Bernardes) pushes me to train even on my days off! I'm also seeing that I'm improving a lot in judo.

“I am waiting for my moment to arrive. Popole will be there with a medal. I believe it will happen because I want this in my life.”

Misenga’s motivations for success are two-fold. Firstly, he wants to ensure that his children don’t have to suffer as he has. Secondly, he wants to improve the lives of all refugees around the world.

“I know that I am a refugee ambassador,” he said. “But all people are the same. We all have hair, nails, teeth and a nose. There is nothing offensive about being a refugee.

“I want to create an NGO to help people in my country, in my village there in Congo, to help others who are not well. I really like helping people. My dream is one day to make an association to help people, children, the elderly, mothers. That's my dream, my objective.